I took a ten day alpine climbing trip with my friend David Martin (July 20-30, 2012) to the Palisades Region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Big Pine, CA. We successfully climbed three classic alpine rock routes (Moon Goddess Arête IV 5.8, Venusian Blind IV 5.7, Swiss Arête III 5.7) and the V Notch alpine ice couloir (Snow/AI 3).
Trips really begin in our mind, when some picture, or route description, or little fantasy starts an itch that can only be satisfied by giving it a try. We left for the scratch on July 20 when we met up in Las Vegas, Nevada. Vegas was great: cheap airline flights, free airport shuttle, discount casino hotel rooms, Desert Rock Sports, REI, and Whole Foods. In the morning on July 21 we cruised up highway 95 from Las Vegas to the left at Lida Junction taking 168 over and down to Big Pine. We joked nervously for the last twenty minutes of the five hour drive as we nearly ran out of gas and would have (there are no filling stations on the last half of the drive) had it not been for the long descent into Owens Valley, which allowed us to coast with the engine off for several miles. We refueled in Big Pine, and headed up to the Ranger Station in Bishop to rent bear canisters and collect our wilderness permit for the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trailhead. Back in Big Pine, we hit up Rossi’s Steak and Spaghetti at the 395 and Glacier Lodge Road junction for a filling dinner. Then we took Glacier Lodge Road up to the Glacier Lodge private campground, where we pitched our tent getting a night of acclimatization at 8000 feet and a free parking space for our rental car for the remainder of the week.
Loaded down with camping kit, eight days of food, rock and ice climbing gear, on July 22 we made the 4.5 mile approach up the North Fork Trail to our first campsite (about 10,000’) near the outlet of Second Lake. We started out sweating in short sleeves and ended up making camp in a cool light rain with distant intermittent lightning and thunder. The clear view of the North Buttress of Temple Crag (12,999’) from this area allowed us to take photos, study the line of Moon Goddess Arête, and plan our morning approach around the southeast side of Third Lake.
On July 23, stoked with excitement for our first climb, we talus hopped for an hour to the base of Moon Goddess by headlamp. Climbing the frozen snowfield at the bottom was easy even without crampons or axe by using the sun cups and rock debris frozen into its surface. We simul-climbed the beginning several hundred feet of lower angle rock on the route and did the remainder of the climb in about fifteen belayed pitches. Midway up, traversing around Ibrium Tower was tricky, as hail was pelting us and the rock was slick from rain, but overall everything went smoothly despite the unsettled weather. After topping out on the arête, we stashed our technical gear along the descent route and scrambled to the summit of Temple Crag. On top we paused among the dark clouds for a photo and our first look at Mt. Sill and the Palisades Crest. The descent to Contact Pass and the single rappel was straightforward. The route took us about thirteen hours round trip from our camp.
That night, as we slept, the weather cleared back to typical Sierra cloud-free skies and remained that way for the rest of our trip. Slacking in sun on the morning of July 24, we re-stuffed our packs then hiked up the trail through beautiful Sam Mack Meadow and muscled our way up the moraine following rock cairns to a high camp (about 4.5 miles) on the eastern side of the Palisade Cirque next to Mt. Gayley (13,510’) at over 12,000 feet. Here we soaked in the outstanding view of the Palisade Glacier, dipped water from a small snowmelt spring, and tucked our tent in a sheltered notch among the rocks.
On the 25th we rested, acclimatized, observed the Palisades couloirs for falling debris, and scouted our approach for the planned ice climb of the V notch Couloir and summit of Polemonium (14,080’). V Notch and U Notch couloirs were melted down to mainly ice, and Clyde couloir still had a thin ribbon of ice connecting most of the way to the top. Scouting our approach to the V Notch, we set up some cairns through the talus field and I went out onto the glacier. In the bright sun and heat of the day, streams of meltwater were rushing down to the tarn and boulders on the ice were shifting and sliding periodically. On my way back, a car-sized boulder came tumbling down from Glacier Notch across my tracks. Rockfall clearly was a hazard. Although we did not witness rockfall in the couloirs, all had significant debris at their bases.
The night of the 26th was windless and clear. The temperature dropped to 32 degrees. Everything froze up solid and quiet. In the pre-dawn stillness we traversed out along the talus on the east side of the Palisades Cirque and cramponed across the Palisade Glacier reaching the bergschrund at the base of the V notch in about forty-five minutes. The V Notch conditions were ideal, with mostly plastic alpine ice and brief patches of styrofoam neve. Swinging technical tools, tied into a single 60m half rope, and using a light alpine rock rack and four ice screws for protection, we blasted up the couloir, leading in blocks, and using the rock buttresses to mitigate the objective rockfall hazard. We topped out by 7:30am. Here we cached all but the rope, a handful of long runners with biners, and two belay lockers figuring the route to the top of Polemonium would be at most 4th class. We found the last bit to be easy 5th class, however, and were happily engaged in the moment using bowlines-on-a-coil, slinging natural protection--like old-school Norman Clyde--as we picked our way up and off the top of Polemonium’s little peak. Collecting our gear back at the top of the V Notch, we scrambled along the talus-covered ridge over to the shoulder of Mt. Sill joining the standard Mt. Sill descent route back to our camp.
On July 27th, we summited Mt. Sill (14,162’) by the Swiss Arête route. We approached the route across the sloping Palisade Glacier using crampons and axes for protection as we traversed above a big crevasse. We hid the ice gear at the base of the 4th class rock scramble that lead up through Glacier Notch. At the top of the notch we deposited another gear cache with extra water and a puffy jacket and racked up for the climb before crossing the L Shaped Snowfield now carrying only one light pack with a hydration bladder and camera. The route went smoothly, and David spiced it up by taking a harder variation straight up the left facing corner instead of going right at the standard crux step-around. Summiting in a light wind, we took a few minutes to enjoy the spectacular 360-degree view under cloudless blue skies. With the descent wired from the day before, we got back to camp without mishap by early afternoon. After a siesta, we packed it all up again, stumbled back down the moraine to Sam Mack Meadow and then down the trail to a spectacular campsite by the inlet to Second Lake (about 10,000’). With one more climbing day available on our trip, we decided that Venusian Blind on Temple Crag would be the most fun objective.
In the early morning of the 28th we balanced our way across the logjam at the outlet of Third Lake, following the climbers trail up into the talus approaching Temple Crag. For the first time, the headlamps of other climbers also flashed through the early morning darkness. Venusian was steeper and more sustained than Moon Goddess, but shorter. High on the route David broke a handhold unexpectedly while traversing along a ledge. Falling backwards off the arête into the open space of the right hand gulley for about thirty feet, the ropes snagged behind a flake, stopping him before his last piece of protection was weighted. The ropes were unharmed, but we were glad to have been using doubles for the extra insurance they provided. David’s hand got a minor cut and his right knee was banged hard in the fall. He finished the pitch and continued to swing leads on the climb, but walking was painful so our descent was slow. I ran ahead to find more water and snatch up a ski pole we had seen abandoned in the boulders at the base of the route so David could have a cane for his limp back to camp.
On the morning of the 29th David’s leg was still store but functional. We packed up for the last time, grateful that we could both walk out without needing any extra help. The loads were divided to give David a lighter pack, and I got the opportunity to experiment with a trumpline to ease the pain of my overloaded pack’s shoulder straps cutting off feeling to my arms. We managed our way back to the car, returned our bear canisters, and enjoyed an après backcountry lunch in Bishop. Then we made the long drive back to Las Vegas, each flying out the next morning, July 30th.
With the classic status and moderate difficulty of the routes in the area we expected to see more people, but only witnessed three other climbing parties over the whole eight days. This was good because with the amount of loose rock, climbing above or below another party would have magnified the rockfall hazard.
Our trip itinerary and gear list worked out very well. By starting at Temple Crag and then moving to another camp higher we experienced a gentle acclimatization process. The standard rock rack to three inches, double ropes, four ice screws, technical ice tools, and crampons we brought allowed for well-protected climbing. We used the Trails Illustrated Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park Trails Map and route topos from Supertopo’s High Sierra Climbing 2004 guidebook and the Sierra Mountain Center’s The Palisades pdf guide found at sierramountaincenter.com. The bear canisters we rented expecting marmot and rodent problems probably weren’t necessary as we didn’t see much wildlife, and there are plenty of tall boulders around from which to hang a food bag.
This trip was partially funded by an American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant for the Southeast Region. I currently live in urban South Florida and David is currently living in rural West Virginia. We became friends while growing up together in pastoral Sussex County, New Jersey, learned to climb during our late teens, each climbing pretty intensely in our twenties but with different partners; both of us have climbed progressively less in our thirties since we started families.
Recently, my interest in alpine climbing has reawakened. Dreaming about the mountains, I made many phone calls to my old friend David in an attempt to lure him into this trip and away from his work, family, and goat farming activities. With our current responsibilities, one week in the mountains was all we could afford in terms of time and resources. We chose the Palisades region because it offers good weather and a high density of climbs with the opportunity to be on both rock and ice.
Being the first big outing for me in several years, it also became a measuring stick for my interest in continuing with climbing and maintaining my identity as an alpine climber. In retrospect, the trip did several things for me. It asserted that I feel undeniably drawn to alpine climbing--it was worth doing even with my current mid-life responsibilities, and the impediments presented by living in Florida with respect to training and getting geared up. It also provided confidence from a successful trip planning and grant writing experience, allowing me to see that bigger objectives are likely very achievable for me. And last, it reignited that familiar scratch and itch cycle--an electrifying stoke to get into the mountains, a peaceful at-home-contentedness while there, and then the almost immediate thoughts of “what’s next?” upon return. For this Florida alpinist, this truly was a dream trip. I’m itching for the next one.